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Fat Tuesday

Marti Gras masks

Marti Gras frightened Sammy Gene beyond all reason. Masks are de rigeur for the carnival. Photo Credit: Emily Naser-Hall @ http://www.axs.com

Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, (February 9 this year) used to scare the begeebers out of me. This disconcerting emotion has been more than a small embarrassment to me ever since I was a street urchin in Mobile, the American birthplace of the annual pre-Lenten bacchanalia. New Orleans claims center stage for debauchery in the public imagination but the even more venerable festival of banality that surged into the streets of Mobile with its ancient mystic pedigree always wagged its own seductive finger in my direction with an inveigling invitation to small sins and temporarily half-wicked pleasures, and this frightened me unreasonably.

As a child these excesses ran only to clandestine candy before dinner. The masked revelers on Government Street in their Bourbon-inspired generosity strew the crowds along the curbs with salt-water taffy, butterscotch and moon pies, unsteadily sowing seeds of venality. There was, I was sure, some reason that the passengers on the floats that glided down the Mobile streets were masked. Why they were disguised I was not certain, but I was suspicious in any case.   Nevertheless it was only candy they were dispensing, but, on the other hand, it was sufficient to rob a child of his modest appetite for his vegetables and for his common life.   Who wants green beans when such sweet delights are an option? Who will be satisfied with everyday when offered long nights of green and purple and gold-spangled parties and balls? Who can resist the temptations to excess when the oh-so-tasty comes unbidden with no apparent cost? Halloween and Mardi Gras share both the same subtly diabolical mystery and the enticing lure of candy.   This Lolla-of-the-floats, who always got what she wanted, wanted me, and so made me feel uneasy, even somehow threatened.

The Symbols of Life

Life is full of symbols. Many of them are exceedingly powerful. Mardi Gras was a basket full of symbolism. The masks hid the public identity of the otherwise respectable citizens of Mobile society to avoid the consequences of societal opprobrium for shattered decorum and uninhibited insobriety. I wondered if the mask, paradoxically, revealed the true face of the men and women in the spangled costumes. Something about the secret societies, the “Crewes” that paraded and produced lavish balls where guests were admitted by invitation only and only when properly attired; then as now, gowns must reach the floor, and tuxedos are de rigeur. And masks, one must wear a mask, for identities are hidden this week.

There seems something slightly irrational to me about the idea that before one enters into a month and ten days of asceticism leading up to Easter, a period designed to cleanse the soul, one must pollute it well with all that one will forego during the fast. I was troubled, even though it all seemed like harmless silliness that Joe Cain, reputed to be the origin of the term, “Raising Cain,” began in 1866; then he appropriated the alter ego of Chief Slacabamorinico and led the revival of the parades of the mystic societies that the Cowbellion de Ranken Society had begun but left off when the South was subjugated in “the War.” The allure of the mystics never abated from their origin in 1703 until the present, even if the parades were intermittent that ran down Church Street and back up Government, lit by the torches they called Les Flambeaux, flares that were carried by dark bearers hired for the occasion. Mother and Dad tried to assure that our experience was wholesome, but they ever feared that we would be lost in the crowds or injured in the crush at the curb. Mother’s apprehensions were confirmed one night when Dale, my brother, was separated from the family for a few anxious minutes.

The flaring light, the loud bands that both delighted with brassy music and shook your stomach with the pounding of the bass drum, and the mad crush of children and adults screaming “Throw me something!” worked a voodoo that was at once intoxicating and revolting. And unspoken, too, there danced the specter of alcoholism that had plagued the men of Mother’s family for generations. Drunkenness was an unpleasant sight that was blatantly and unrepentantly on display to our innocent eyes even if the maskers were unidentified.

Serious Folly

Of the scores of parading societies that trooped down the street in Mardi Gras, the Knights of Revelry most impressed me. Annually the floats would change with a new theme to inspire their creation, but just as each Crewe displayed one immutable society float, KoR presented their Jester-and-Death tableau. The symbol of their society was a broken column reminiscent of the hundreds that stood before defunct and abandoned plantation houses that were strewn across reconstruction Alabama.   Around the ruined graciousness of the neo-colonial column danced two figures. A pied jester, known to all as “Folly,” armed only with a golden inflated pig’s bladder sparred with a skeleton carrying a formidable scythe; they identified him as “Death.” In all of the scenes that passed by me, Folly always seemed to have the upper hand. How this symbol spoke to me of Mobile and Mardi Gras! Her citizens have faced and continue to endure destruction and disappointment time and again from wars and hurricane, from societal upheaval and cultural conflict, and from economic or personal reversals, but something in the Mobilian character has made us laugh at our loss and continue to celebrate life, even taunting Death. Twain, while not a Southerner himself, might have approved since he is reputed to have said, “Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His works must be contemplated with respect.”

Marti Gras flambeaux

Flambeaux illuminated the night time parades when Sammy was a child in Mobile as they still do today in New Orleans. Photo credit: anerdsguidetoneworleans.wordpress.com

Beyond the Flambeaux

I did regard the comic life-size emblem with respect. Nevertheless, the image haunted me. For a time, I dreamed of the harlequin who danced with its pig’s bladder. In my dream I lay safe beneath the house and peered out into a frightening world obscured in darkness, save for the jester illuminated in the flaring light of the Flambeaux. When he danced far away I looked on only with curiosity, but when he drew near, my heart raced with anxiousness and desperation. Freud said that sometimes a dream is only a dream, but I sense I understand what my psyche was telling me. Folly may be alluring but there is, indeed, reason to be on my guard. Neither Death nor Life is as playful as he or she is portrayed in a Mardi Gras parade. This disturbs me still. Whenever I look again upon the revelry, I worry what else lurks in the dark beyond the light of the Flambeaux. Ash Wednesday follows hard on every Fat Tuesday.

Marti Gras Folly

Folly leads the Knights of Revelry Photo credit: blog.al.com

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Happy Solar Circuit!

M101 cropped

A spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way: M101 Photo credit: ESA & NASA PIs Kuntz, Bresolin,, Trauger, Mould and Chu et al.

The ball has dropped on a new year. January 1 marked the day we completed our latest orbit about the sun as we wished each other “Happy New Year.” Of course, there was a time when the calendar did not begin there. It was Julius Caesar, who in 46 BC moved New Year’s Day backward three months from the vernal (spring time) equinox in March to its current place in the calendar. Two years later Julius was assassinated (probably not for his calendric activities, however). Some still begin the year on the vernal “equinox” (meaning “equal night” [and day]), one of the two times each year that the sun appears to rise precisely in the east and the night and day light are equally 12 hours long. This year the vernal equinox is March 19.

In fact, other cultures use other calendars. One other innovation of Julius Caesar was to add—in fourth year—a leap day to the formerly final month of the year, February, to correct for the approximately six hours the year exceeds 365. Unfortunately the Julian system overcorrected by about 3/400 of a day each year. In 1582 Pope Gregory (actually a conference of calendar geeks, like this author) devised a method to account for this over correction. At their suggestion he revised the Julian calendar so that every century that should be (under the system of Caesar) a leap year is, instead, a regular year, unless the year is divisible by 400, thus eliminating the extra three days in four hundred years. Problem solved! He also reset the year by removing ten days from the calendar.

Happy Old New Year

But, one consequence of this innovation is a gradually increasing disparity between the two calendars. Thus, January 1 (on the old calendar), the so called “Old New Year” that is still used by the Orthodox Christian Church, that rejects the authority of the Roman Catholic Pope, falls on the modern (Gregorian) calendar, today January 14, 2016. So, I say “Happy Old New Year!”

In an attempt to overcome my Eurocentric bias I have looked into the calendars of other cultures that start their year on other days, rather than January 1, and have found that they are often associated with celestial events. For example, the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is associated with the autumnal (fall) equinox and the new moon. This year the Jewish New Year occurs on the evening of October 2, 2016. The Islamic New Year also uses the moon for its cadence, beginning the next day, October 3, 2016.

But as I contemplated my sixty-ninth circuit about the sun, I was tempted to say, “Here we go again!” Then I realized that our solar system is also orbiting the galactic center where lurks a massive black hole. This “Galactic Year” (the time to make one galactic circuit) is estimated to be a little less than a quarter of a billion years. Therefore, in the 4.54 billion years since the formation of the earth, the solar system has made approximately twenty circuits. So, the earth is nearing three galactic weeks of age!

Never the Same River

On the other hand, the solar system is orbiting at a velocity of about 143 miles per second! We, riders on the earth, are corkscrewing through space at an astonishing speed. That fact implies that since last January 1, 2015 we have moved about four and half billion miles. In a very real way the old adages applies to us, the one that advises, “You never step into the same river twice.” As we pass through the year, orbiting our local star, the seasons changing with the angle of the sun in the sky, I now realize that we are not in the same place we were twelve months ago. We are very far removed, in fact. Each minute that passes we hurtle a distance equal to the diameter of the earth.

What is more, I am not the same person I was then, either, nor are you. Our experiences and memories have changed us even though (contrary to popular mythology) my brain cells are the same ones I had last year. My brain has merely been slightly rewired by my thoughts and memories. On the other hand, my same heart has beaten approximately 32 million times but my blood cells have indeed been replaced several times. At the atomic level, moreover, only 2% of the atoms of my body remain from the body I inhabited a year ago. Thus, I am indeed, not the man I was, although I look much the same. I have been renovated at my core.

From these reflections I take away two profound truths. Firstly, as a different person than I was a year ago–but yet a doppelganger of myself–I am not the prisoner of my past. I can chose a different direction as I move forward even if I begin at the spot where I find myself. Two dear friends shared a photo of an artist’s installation they encountered on their hike up the Aggenstein in Bavaria, Germany. It has become an icon of this principle to me. The object is an open door on the path. The future is, indeed, an open door. We can choose to pass through it or turn away. In the photograph we see the paths that record the choices of many feet. I will be looking for those open doors that I encounter in the year ahead. I was reminded of Jesus words, “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” (Rev 3:8) What a wonderful possibility! Open doors abound.

The second take away truth I see is the old and possibly clichéd realization that one will only pass this way once. Every moment is unique. We are speeding through space at a breakneck speed. Humanity has never been here before. Thus, I must savor every moment like a meal that I will enjoy only once, although the memory will linger forever. Every thought, every breath, every interaction changes me and I change everything I touch, as well.

So as we go round again for the first time, may we enjoy the view from the track and leave our own traces on high mountain paths we have never trod before.

So I wish you a Very Happy Solar Circuit. How good to cross paths this time around.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Open Door Aggenstein Bavaria, Germany, the icon of possibility that lies before us. Photo credit Chris Littler

Viennese Advent

Straw Stars cropped

Straw Christmas Star Ornaments, purchased at the Wien Kriskindlmart in Vienna, Austria in 1978 by the Matteson family. Photo Credit; Sam Matteson

Sitting beside my son of thirty-seven years, I bit into the grilled bratwurst and was instantly transported to Vienna, carried there in the same way that Proust was prompted to recall his youth while tasting a Madeleine and tea in Remembrance of Things Past. The salty and smoky taste of the sausage coupled with the tang of the spiced mustard filled me with a sense of inexplicable joy. To me this is the undeniable flavor of the advent season.

A little less than thirty-seven sevens before, a time when I looked very like my child does today, my family and I had completed our sojourn in Budapest, Hungary. The gray days of late November in Communist-era Hungary added an oppressive air to the already gray cityscape. We were well treated by our hosts, who earned our life-long friendship by their kindness, but we longed to return home to the United States, more and more as the months dragged by. At last, the day arrived for our scheduled departure. The day before I had shipped the majority of our clothing to Munich by train.

I experienced firsthand the frustrations of navigating a rigid bureaucratic state that day. Only dollars would be accepted for international shipments I learned after standing in a long queue. The station shipping department could not accept traveler’s checks even if in dollar denominations. That was the job of the bank. At the bank in the station I stood in yet another line to have the checks cashed with a 3% fee, of course. The bank would only dispense the cash in Hungarian Forints, however. “But I need the cash in dollars,” I complained. I was directed to yet another line at the monetary exchange where for a high fee and a highly unfavorable but centrally determined exchange rate, I ultimately obtained the requisite cash to pay for the shipment. After nearly three hours of exasperation this task was accomplished.

I had heard the Hungarian quip that if you see a queue protruding from a shop you should get in the line. There was bound to be something good at the end of it. I also heard that a certain Gabor had been in a line so long that he said to the lady behind him that we was going to go to the ministry of commerce to complain. He left, only to return a few minutes later and reenter the queue with the explanation, “The line at the complaint department is even longer than this line. Mit tudok tenni?” The latter was a phrase meaning “What can I do?” that we heard often both as an offer of help and as a cry of resignation frequently rendered with a shrug. I understood the feeling well and experientially after my time in the shipping department.

 We Had a Plan

On the morning of our departure, we mapped out a plan and then proceeded to execute it. We cleaned the apartment, collected our three children, and packed all the remainder of our belongings into the Simca sedan we had purchased from a friend in Germany a few months before. It was a decent if modest conveyance, even if the floor board was rusting out from too many Bavarian winters and their salt. It would not have passed the TUV the next year, I fear. Since we had no garage, we had left the white car parked out front of the apartment building where it gradually had turned gray, as it acquired a thick coating of Budapest grime. I was concerned once when I came out to the car one morning a few weeks earlier to find a word drawn by a small finger in the dust on the rear window. It read, “PISZKOS.” I asked my host the meaning of this graffiti, to which he replied, “It’s dirty.”

I responded, “It’s okay, Peter, you can tell me what it means, I am a big boy.”

He then laughed and continued, “No! The word is not vulgar. It means, ‘I am dirty,’ you know like ‘Wash me!’ in the US. The school kids on your block were just giving you some advice.” Unfortunately our time was up before I could learn enough Hungarian to have the car washed so we traveled in a piszkos autó.

Our first stop the morning of our departure was to check out with the local police at their neighborhood rendőrőrs (guard house) as required by law for resident aliens such as we. For months we had been aliens all the while I had been a visiting researcher in an exchange between the United States National Science Foundation and the corresponding entity in the Magyar Koztarsasag (Hungarian Republic, what Hungarian call their nation).

Next we motored through the crowded streets of the capital city, dodging honking Ladas and Vilamos electric trams as well as thousands of pedestrians. We pulled up to the Intourist office and returned our keys to the manager and signed more paperwork.We now were officially homeless. We had also expended almost all of our Hungarian currency and dollars, since we were prohibited from “exporting” currency from the country. Thus, we were nearly penniless. We hoped to replenish our cash reserves by cashing a personal check at the AmEx office in the Austrian capital. This was in the days before international banking and the convenience of widely accepted US credit cards in Europe.

One Last Stop

The Ministry of Culture was our final stop before embarking up Bécsi utca (Vienna Road) for the 250 km (150 mile) trip to Vienna and the approximately three hours of driving (plus one hour at the border station at Hesgeshalom). We were, we had been told, to return our “staying permits” and reclaim our US passports at the ministry offices. Thus, as properly documented aliens we could depart by vehicle. When I was able, after several minutes of futile inquiry, to reach an English speaking official, I was told that the request was supposed to have been made two weeks prior to our departure, a fact nobody had informed us of.

I told the assistant that that was unfortunate, indeed, since we had been informed otherwise and that we now had no apartment, no money, and must drive to Vienna before the American Express Office closed so that we could find accommodations for the night. The image of Carolyn sitting with our three children in the echoing hallway is seared into my memory. I gave my long-suffering wife a hasty brief of our situation, then added “If little Peter [our six month old] starts to cry don’t try too hard to pacify him. You don’t have to pinch him or anything, but the more annoying we are, the more motivated they will be to get us on our way.” Anyway even a communist bureaucrat cannot be unmoved by a crying infant, I reasoned. Whether, our desperate measures were the reason or not, we will never know, but the passports eventually materialized hours later and we were on our way, but well after noon. All that lay between us and Vienna were two hundred fifty kilometers and a heavily armed border.

In the days of preparation before funds were exhausted, snacks and juice had been purchased for the trip at the local fruit stand and at the government-run ABC market at the train station. These victuals fortified us as we sped through town past empty shop windows. I noticed an irony: finally a shop was displaying clothes pins for sale that had been unavailable for the nearly four months of our visit. As we headed out the Vienna Road, I also recalled a story my host had told me. István and Gabor were chatting.

“That is a beautiful coat you have on Gabor. Where did you buy it?” István asked.

Bécsi utca, the Vienna Road.”

“I was out that way yesterday. I saw no coats like that for sale.”

“Ah!” said Gabor, “”You went to the wrong end.”

We were on our way to the other end, now. But the clock was ticking. Would we make it by 1700 hours?  That time, 5:00 p.m., was when we though the American Express Office would close. If we arrived too late. what then? My mind reeled at the potentially awful scenarios.

To Be Taking Picture, Forbidden!

Photo TilosAt the border, the cars lined up waiting to be searched, for what I was never certain. The scene was intimidating. Gray flannel clad soldiers carrying machine guns paced before the barbwire-topped fences. Nearly an hour passed as we incrementally crept forward. We have no photographs of Hegeshalom, by all accounts a lovely village. On the highway were posted signs of cameras with a forbidden slash symbol that we had seen before near Soviet military posts. We learned that this Hungarian phrase Fényképezni Tilos means the taking of pictures forbidden! We complied as quickly and courteously as we could with the instruction to completely unpack the car, then repack it when none of our suspected contraband or our hidden defectors were uncovered.

Vienna, At Last

We roared into the Stadt Mitte of Vienna a few minutes after 5:00 p.m. and ran as fast as a couple, two toddlers, and an infant can move to the AmEx office. They were open! Until 1800 hours, thankfully. We cashed a check, learned of where we could book accommodation, and what was happening in the city center that evening. Across the cobble stone square we made reservations for that night at one of the most luxurious hotels of our entire European adventure. All the Mattesons were exhausted by our headlong flight from Eastern Europe and the adults decided that it was foolhardy to ask the children to submit to sitting in a civilized restaurant in our condition.  We strolled the Wien Kriskindlmart (Vienna’s Christ Child Market), a wonderland of glittering lights and Christmas festival foods that runs daily during advent. We marveled at the opulence of objects in the shop windows of Austria’s jeweled city. The lights and the tree shed a soft and welcoming glow across our path. Hot tea and cocoa warmed us. Pretzels, strudel, and cookies satisfied our hunger. Indeed, it was for us Wiener Adventszauber (Viennese Advent Magic). Among the ornate and expensive items we found more humble but equally delightful ones. We selected traditional straw stars that even at this Christmastide adorn our tree. I found my grilled bratwurst and senf (spicy German-style mustard), and it tasted of joy, the joy of freedom, the joy of knowing that we had completed something significant in our lives, and the joy of a faith affirmed that though the way may be hard, by God’s grace we can triumph over hardship. This I feel again every time I taste once more my Viennese Advent. May your advent be filled with joy also.

Vienna Christ Kildl Mart

Vienna Rathaus Kriskindlmart 1978 Photo credit: Sam Matteson

A Grandfather Clock

Clock Quartz

A quartz time piece can tell me precisely how late I am to my next appointment. Photo Credit: http://www.clockworks.com

There hangs a clock on my kitchen wall that ticks each second off in crystalline precision. It is not the pendulous kind of clock that fascinated me when I was a child.   It is a thoroughly modern timepiece. Where once the distinguished name of a chronometer’s creator, a proud craftsman, was proclaimed, the name of him who had conceived and executed a device of great intricacy with rasp and skill, with turnings and dexterity, with jewel bearings and ingenuity, with ratchet and pawl, now an anonymous “quartz” is imprinted.

Nevertheless, I can now have time dispensed to me with the accuracy of the Atomic Clock in Boulder, Colorado, where unsuspecting Cesium atoms oscillate at their native frequency of over 9 trillion ticks per second while voyeur technologists watch and listen intently and sound a radio gong at the passing of each second. Now I can know with astonishing precision how late I am to an appointment or how little time I have left to do what I must and would do. But I do not better know how to spend my time now than before.

Only So Many Heatbeats

Graydon Larrabee, a colleague of my Texas Instruments days, dismissed all time invested in exercise as folly, thus: “You have only so many heart beats, I understand. You waste yours grunting and sweating; I will spend mine more pleasurably, here, beside the pool, drinking Margaritas and watching the sunset.” An interesting idea. But if by raising your heart rate to 120 for thirty minutes per day for five days of every week, you could lower your resting heart rate by five beats per minute for the remainder of your life, you would reduce the overall number of cardiac contractions by the equivalent of about five years over a normal life span. So exercise might extend your life by a half decade, if life were as simple as arithmetic. I am the beneficiary of a youth of active exertion so that my resting heart rate is often as low as 45 pulses per minute. Cardiologists call this condition “Bradycardia,” and sometimes show concern. Nevertheless, at that rate I should live to the age of 101. By this logic I reckon that if I can get my heart to stop all together I should expect to live forever.

Indeed, if I were to live to see eighty Februaries I should have expended about two and a half billion seconds, and my heart would have contracted just about as many times. And if I had taken a step with each heat beat, then my journey would be nearly a million miles, two round trips to the moon, or 38 times around the world. Such a trip should take us far from where we began. But as we circumperambulate the globe we may end very near to where we began. It all depends on where and when we stop and how we wander, like laps around a cinder track.

I half resent and half revel in those ticking clicks that are the sounds of seconds evaporating. It is inevitable that time be dispensed in such small and manageable doses. The ocean of time is so immense that we would drown is centuries and millennia if it were not dispensed to us in mouthfuls of seconds. Still seconds often seem to come so fast we invariably spill many of them, never to be recovered. Time wasted is time we will never taste again.

A Grandfather Clock ticked away in Doc Brown's office metering out them minutes of boredom waiting as his patience. Photo Credit: www.riotgamesmerch.com

A Grandfather Clock ticked away in Doc Brown’s office metering out the minutes of boredom waiting as his patient. Photo Credit: riotgamesmerch.com

My memory is clogged with clocks; the grandfather clock in Dr. Brown’s office. His clock ticked and ticked and ticked interminably, and we waited impatiently an eternity to receive shots or to endure his probing of my sore throat or for an examination of a perennial ear infection. Ma and Pa Moates, too, had a clock, a cuckoo clock that ticked frenetically and, on the hour, hoarsely crowed its wooden heart out. Then there was the mantle clock of my Mother’s sister, Ruth, whom we all called “Aunt Sister,” a name that now seems a strangely ambivalent appellation for a confusing relationship, but in customary use seemed so natural and easy to pronounce. In the culture of my home and family “Aunt Sister,” “Uncle Doc,” and “Miss Mary” were the gentle way of speaking that raised no eyebrows, though we had no “Uncle Bubba” until I married into the Rhodes’ family of Texas. But I digress. There were clocks everywhere ticking, ticking then.

Einstein was right: time is relative. But our sense of time obeys different laws than the clocks or the mechanics he worked out. Time drags its feet when we would hurry toward an event, leaving long parallel grooves on the ground. And time rushes ahead of us as we drawback from the future, it dragging us forward inexorably. In the South we often stop the clock’s pendulum all together when someone dies, just as we cover the mirrors. The clock has stopped for our loved ones to be sure. But perhaps it is good for us to take time out to grieve and to ponder life. Then we return to the frenetic pace of business as usual.

The variability of internal time may explain why I have always had trouble with rhythm. I find it impossible to keep a steady beat. I theorize and excuse my lack of “groove” as a congenital inability to properly subdivide time because of my bradycardia. “I don’t have a rhythm bone,” I insist. My musician son has a different explanation: “Dad, you’re too white, that’s all!”

Sometimes this temporal defect has been simply an embarrassment, but occasionally it has been a sad disability that caused me to shake my head and cluck at myself. I recall the Sergeant’s remark when I was in the Marine Corps, “Matheson (intentionally and precisely mispronouncing my name with a gratuitous “h”) would make an excellent guide if only he could march. He can’t keep a steady cadence.” Many times I have mocked myself by singing in a halting beat, “I’ve got…rhythm….I got music. I got my gal. How could ask for anything more?”

Still Running

I have always been racing the clock, it seems, challenged to keep up. Often this has been true figuratively, but in my teenage years it was most literal. I was a runner. My lanky legs made me ill-suited to short sprints. My lack of long-term stamina precluded any prowess at distance. But my stupidity made me a candidate for the middle distance. The willingness to subject oneself to agony is a prerequisite for such races. The taste for masochism is a distinct asset for the middle distance racer.   The half-mile, the 880 yard run, is the plebian cousin of the more cosmopolitan 800-meter “dash” of international competition. The 800 is a race devised by a sadist. I can hear him exclaiming at the moment of inspiration, rubbing his hands together, “I know! Let’s have these poor chaps run their hearts out for a quarter of a mile, but instead of letting them break the tape then, let’s have them slough out a second lap around the track. What bully fun!”

I always approached the race with anxiety and dread. I was like a skittish dog approaching its master, the one who always cuffed his ears in greeting, making him howl. “Butterflies” they delicately call the sensation of the anticipation of an unwelcome, painful event. My reaction felt more like hornets ominously swarming in my abdomen; at the next moment they may decide to sting in a deadly attack. Perhaps the psychological experience was necessary to prepare me physiologically for the next two minutes of exertion. I could feel the adrenaline pouring into my blood stream. In “fight or flight,” like a deer fleeing the hunter, I started at the sound of “Runners to your mark! . . . Ready!” then an eternal pause, and at last the starter’s pistol retort. It is no accident, I believe, that such races begin with the runners fleeing from the sound of a shot.

It most often begins well enough, in a civilized fashion. Each runner dashes straight down his assigned lane for the first fifty yards, vying for a slight advantage by the time he reaches the curve, enough advantage to justify his cutting off his nearest challenger at the turn when we all break to the inside. The clock ticks steadily then. Paces come four or five to the second and the grass at the side of the track blurs by. The other runners, arms pumping, are close; you can hear them breathing the first deep breaths they have taken since the start; and at the break they jostle each other. Once a runner only a half step ahead of me at the curve cut in and spiked the muscle above my right knee. A thin red stripe grew down my leg and bathed my black track shoes. I never got the rust color out of the laces although I washed them repeatedly. But Neet’s Foot oil restored the leather of my spiked shoes and kept then supple for years after I had hung them up for good.

The aptly named backstretch is coming, this is the place where we stretch our stride and let our feet eat up the yards. If someone else leads I mustn’t let them get out of reach; if I lead I must carefully measure my expenditure of heart beats, just enough to stay ahead, but not too many to squander myself before the finish. But I have only fifteen seconds more to strategize and to adjust before the first quarter mile is ending.   I see the white line signaling the mid-way point of the race and I hear my coach yelling “49, 50, 51, 52….” He is watching his stopwatch and calling out the seconds as they tick off. His voice is growing louder as I approach: “56, 57, 58, 59, 60…a bell rings as we begin the last lap. “Pretty fast pace,” I note silently as I make the turn. Then the seconds begin to sag like a Salvador Dali painting, hanging limp and long as I am lost in my own disoriented world as the second lap repeats the first. When will this race ever end? I am trapped in the commitment to the people in the stands, to my coach, to myself to run on and finish. Where are the other runners? I can hear them, I think. Are they struggling as am I?   When will they make their final move? When should I make my final kick?

Start Your Kick!

Here it comes, up ahead, the curve. “Now! Start your kick, Sam.” I lean forward slightly and push hard against the ground to spring forward. I accelerate and lean into the curve. It feels good, for a few seconds. Then as I come around the final curve, it hits me. As if a bear had suddenly jumped onto my back, I instantly gain three hundred pounds. The clock speeds up while my motion slows to a viscous pace. I strain to keep up with the world but it is receding. The crowd is roaring as the runners fan out across the lanes for the final eighty yards, but their voices are muted, far away. The only sounds I hear are the sounds of my labored breathing coming in a jagged three-four waltz rhythm, inhale for two beats; exhale explosively for one count. And my heart is beating in my ears like a clock, loud and insistent. I hear the footsteps of my rival, too, who is pulling up to my right. They sound somehow ominous. I dig deeper to run faster. The tape is across the track, and I focus on crossing it in just a few more ticks of the clock, a few more steps, a few more heart beats. The world turns red and my vision tunnels to a small circle centered on the finish. I fling up my arms and lunge across the line. “Did I finish first, second, last? No matter. I finished. What was my time? Good. I beat my personal best.”

The Finish

One of my high school team mates (Alvin Seale, left) makes his final kick to win the relay race in 1965. I still feel as if I am running, myself. Photo Credit: Sam Matteson

I marvel at what I once did not think possible: that one entity can be two contradictory things at once. Time runs simultaneously fast and slow. Time both sprints and ambles. My last race was only yesterday. It was fifty years ago. No, I am still running and wondering about the finish. I wonder if I will have enough to make it in good time. I hope God is running with me and with be there to catch me at the tape. It is taking all the strength that I can muster.

I am ambivalent about ticking clocks. At once they remind me of how inexorably the seconds evaporate, but at the same time, their tiny voices are speaking a reassuring rhythm of faithfulness.

December Variations

Lisa Noelle-3 (left) and Carrie Susan-4 (right) enjoy a ride at Lions’ Park Waco, Texas as Christmas approaches. You can almost hear the carols ringing in the background. (Photo credit Sam Matteson 1976)

Do you hear that? . . . There! In the background. I hear it so often—on every street corner, in the mall, spilling from churches and from offices—that I hum along without even thinking about it. It’s the sound of December, the music heralding the approach of Christmas, like the distant sound of the brass band in the Thanksgiving parade. More than any other season, December has its own joyous accompaniment.

Many things I anticipate with pleasure as December approaches, but the music—Ah! the music—cheers me most. Carols, impatient as children, begin in the last weeks of November like the overture before the real symphony. We know that it’s really December when the winter middle school band concerts happen all over town. The presentation must always include a rendition of Jingle Bells performed by the gaggle of Christmas geese, the seventh grade clarinet players, who have studied the wicked reed for only twelve weeks. Their merry approximation of the tune fills the gym and makes us smile (or grimace):

“Honk, honk, honk!
Honk, honk, honk!
Squawk, honk, squeak, honk, squawk!”

Sweet Carols in Memory

"Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views" by Godofbiscuits - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg#/media/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg

“Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views” by Godofbiscuits – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons – https://commons. wikimedia.org/ wiki/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg#/media/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg

But not all the sounds of the holidays are strident. Hark how the bells, the sweet silver hand bells, resound in my heart! In a long ago December bell concert my wife (eight months pregnant and great with our first child) worried that she would be delivered on stage, red robed and white gloved even as she was. Baby Carrie was moved as well—in utero—by the stirring melody and responded with her own lively dance.

I, too, have loved music from childhood. I can still recall singing in the “cherub choir” on Christmas Eve. The candle light, the stained glass of “big church,” the smiling faces of the people are colored with crayons in my memory. What I most recall, though, is my fascination with the starched surplice and red bow that hung beneath my chin as if I were a Christmas present. The white fabric made a delightful crackle as I flapped my arms like angel wings. The director was not amused, however.

Perhaps it was then that I began to be persuaded that the human voice can be the most glorious instrument in all of the world. As I grew older I looked forward to December, when I again could be transported by making music myself. And what more majestic piece in which to be immersed than Handel’s Messiah? And so it came to pass that in those days my wife and I joined the choir. Every Wednesday evening after work, from Thanksgiving to Christmas week, we practiced the trills and runs of the grand baroque oratorio, while our sweet toddlers, Carrie, and her younger sister Lisa Noelle played and colored Xeroxed line drawings of the manger and wise men under the watchful eyes of “Granny” Slade.

Afterward, homeward bound to baths, story books, and bed the girls were parceled to each parent for some quality one-on-one time. So it was that Lisa Noelle rode with Daddy in the old blue Volkswagen. After placing my almost three-year-old— clad in corduroy overalls and lady-bug-and-flower sneakers—into her seat, I climbed in and started the car. I could not restrain the music that only minutes before had swelled from a giant choir. A rousing chorus of the oratorio spilled from my mouth:

“And He shall purify.
And He shall puri-fi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-y the sons of Levi.”
Lisa looked puzzled as she studied my face. Then she held up her tiny hand as if to say “Stop!” Her brow wrinkled and she admonished me in a tone that I had never heard before.

“Daddy! Your mouth is scribbling!”

I pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped. It is difficult to drive when you are doubled over in laugher. Decades later, I cannot hear the strains of Handel’s masterpiece without thinking of my little one. I smile at the memory and at the irony of the woman she has become—a wife, a mother, a school teacher and a classically trained soprano who knows well the scribbles and curlicues of bel canto.

Joyfully Seeking the Messiah

So I soak it all in, all the music of December. I note the Messiah performances at the Schermerhorn and at area churches. I am disappointed to find that the Messiah Sing-Along, (note: BYOS, that is, bring your own score) is sold out already despite my preparation. I absorb all the music I can in December because it must last me the rest of the year. For come Boxing Day, the carols will be silenced, put away with the tinsel and the tree. But I for one will still be singing, well outside the lines, joyfully scribbling in my heart:

“Unto us a child is born.
Unto us a son is given . . . .
Hallelujah, Hallelujah!”

Hallelujah, indeed!

The Messiah is an essential part of my Christmas. Photo credit: miamionthecheap.com/lotc-cms/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/handel-messiah-300x168.jpg

The Messiah is an essential part of my Christmas. Photo credit: miamionthecheap.com/lotc-cms/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/handel-messiah-300×168.jpg

Church Towers

In Europe one cannot avoid the presence of ancient church houses. Their towers dominate the skyline while the influence of the congregations who built them has waned. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978.

I saw much of the public kind of religion growing up. I saw it put on like Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, but it did not always fit well like the too tight dress shoes you out grew not long ago. I saw. I was not blind. I could tell that it was a show that made no difference most of the time. But many of us for “Momma’s sake” or “old time’s sake” or just for “Pete’s sake” went through the motions. I wondered if some folk were touchy about religion because the one they had was not really theirs. They must have borrowed it, for even bringing up the subject made them feel a sham, and a good thump from a question was enough to produce an echoing hallow “thud” from the empty shell of their faith.

Even I went dutifully to church despite such considerations. In defense I cultivated strategies to endure the deadening weight of stultifying music inexpertly rendered with pretension and immodest but undeserved pride; I sat through endless pompous orations delivered with stentorian rhetoric that seemed so interminable, irrelevant and beside the point of my life. I found that I could entertain myself with mental games that only occasionally were disruptive. For example if I stared at the podium, spot lit with a single bright light, I could burn into my retinas the image of the scene so that I could erase the figure of the sweating evangelist and he would disappear. I could still hear his voice however.   I counted the holes in the tiles and did mental arithmetic calculating the average number of holes per tile and per square foot. As much as I could I often went elsewhere in my mind.

Despite the boredom I complied with my parents command to get ready every Sunday morning without audible protest partly because of the guilt I felt whenever I was apostate and partly because of the deep-seated hope that flickered in my breast that perhaps I would at last meet God in the church and that He would begin to answer some of my most troubling questions. But I was taught to look with suspicion on novelty in matters religious; questions raised by science and “Higher Criticism” were dismissed by most as new fangled and suspect. The “old time religion” we sang about that was “good enough for Paul and Silas” had to be “good enough for me.” Unfortunately and paradoxically, the religion of my fathers I learned was a twentieth century contrivance, and I suspected that the novelty of the first century Jesus-way would have shocked the congregants and parishioners of my church with its alien form and Middle Eastern subtlety.

All Day Singing and Dinner on the Grounds

Now don’t get me wrong; there were plenty of things that I liked about the church, but they mainly had to do with the people, imperfect as they were. We were a family, or a community at the very least. I felt loved and cared for by people who did not have to give a care about me, but did nevertheless. This community of a few hundred souls was nowhere more evident than when we had “All day singing and dinner on the grounds.” The church potluck was something I looked forward to with the pleasure of a healthy adolescent appetite. Of course there was an etiquette and morality that was not spoken of in public nor declared explicitly but that you learned at home. I can still hear my mother’s admonition: “Never take as much as you want. If there is only a little left in the pot take no more than half. Remember the people in line behind you. Don’t embarrass your momma or your God. You don’t want to make God or me blush, now do you? Instead make them both proud of you.” I perversely dreamed of an all day dinner (and singing on the grounds) when we could have as much as we wanted. When I heard stories about heaven this metaphor always leapt to mind. I wondered about what was the church, at the first. I hoped it was like what I dreamed of.

The study of the origin of words that we daily use tells us much about how humans have used (and misused) them over the ages and what we are unwittingly saying when we speak them. The etymology of the word “church” in English versus the New Testament word “ekklesia” (the called out ones) that it translates is informative in this regard. Scholars of language tell us that “church” originates in the non-Biblical Greek word “kyriakon” (literally “of the Lord”) perhaps also a contracted form of “kyriake oikon” (Lord’s House). Over the centuries the word slipped into Gothic dialects as kirche that, in turn, migrated to “church” in English. How different is the current meaning and connotation of this word from the original meaning it translates! It seems that “church people” have mistaken the church house for the “called out ones” that assemble there, substituting architecture for biology. The Apostle Paul likens the ekklesia to the body and bride of Christ, a living entity, not a brick and mortar edifice.

Over the decades of my life, as I wandered from place to place, I came to understand more of this reality. I saw empty church houses throughout the world: beautiful buildings dedicated to God but that had no life within them any more. I have also observed ecclesiastical institutions that still functioned but were as empty of real vitality as a deserted kirk on the moor. Gratefully, I have known exceptions.

When we arrived in Pasadena for our sojourn in a postdoctoral assignment we, as was our custom, visited the local church house on Sunday early in our stay. When we walked into the meeting room we were immediately embraced by the group that included (to our surprise and delight) friends that we had known years before and thousands of miles away. The seminarians in the small gathering of the Sunday School, who were as transient as we, showed us that we must “love in a hurry.” Strangers no longer, we went deep and were loved well even to this day.

A Sojourn in the Desert

Our assignment called for a time abroad in Germany and Hungary. Despite our best intentions, we were unsuccessful at connecting with a local congregation in the six months we were abroad. Surrounded by kind but secular friends and coworkers, we were nevertheless “on our own” spiritually. It was a sojourn in the desert, dry and difficult. We felt the presence of God as we traveled but we missed the encouragement and fellowship that we had known in Pasadena. Great was the rejoicing when we returned. I resolved never again to live in isolation.

Thus, as we have relocated the several times in our itinerant life, we have sought out where God would have us graft into His body, the church. There were occasions of heartache, for sure, on this journey when human imperfections caused hurt in the body. There were times of desperation that drove us to our knees, as when our long-time faith family came close to shuttering the church house doors. But from our humbled position God amazed us and filled our hearts with joy as we realized that it was not “our” church but His. Yes, it was a Lazarus moment when the congregation roared back to life as satellite a “campus” of a larger, healthier body. Ultimately, the resurrected congregation became again a separate and independent entity, unique in its context and membership. It was then that I re-learned that a real church was not a social club but a living, breathing collection of Christ-following but not yet-perfected-saints committed to Christ and one another.

It was there I was known most intimately for the first time outside of my family and—wonder of wonders—loved anyway by my brothers and sisters in Christ, a terrestrial example of heavenly grace. When we were led at my retirement to leave the college town to be nearer our children, we grieved our separation from the dear saints we had come to love. In our annual migrations to and from our summer retirement home in the Colorado mountains, the pull of this faith family is irresistible. We inevitably find reason to deviate a few hundred miles from a direct route just to worship again with our sibs there, for it was there we learned that church means “doing life together,” complete with mutual accountability and encouragement. You cannot long mutually care deeply about others and appreciate them without it becoming habitual and natural.

Church Mosque Pecs

 

The church/Mosque in Pecs, Hungary that was constructed as the Pasha Gazi Kasim Mosque during the century-long Turkish occupation, demolishing the original Gothic church to obtain stones to build the mosque. Then in the 19th century, the building was rededicated for use as a church. In the foreground the Matteson girls pose in the late fall of 1978. Photo credit: Sam Matteson

 

 

 

 

So now that we have moved in retirement to two new locales, we as genuine “snowbirds” we have identified two congregations where we can do life. As we alternate seasonally between the two ranges, the Rockies and the Cumberland Plateau, we have endeavored in each venue to invest in the lives of our Jesus-sibs and be shepherded and nurtured in return. Thus, we hope that in a real sense we can continue to partake of an appetizer of the banquet that awaits the church, the All-day-singing and dinner-on-the-grounds.

The Old Time Religion

Church house

Religion is a touchy subject. No doubt about that. People would always get excited whenever the topic of religious faith came up when I was a child; this was so even if everybody had at least one favorite, whether they admitted it or not, be it one of the “Bible Belt” orthodoxies, some version of a thoughtful or an unconscious inherited agnosticism or even an absent-minded hedonism. Religion and politics—I was taught early in my youth—are not fit for polite dinner conversation, although why I do not remember ever being told. They cause indigestion, I suppose. This state of affairs seemed particularly strange to me since, down South, religion is the basis of the third standard question with which we skewer our victims in the inquisition of new acquaintance. After “Where y’all from?” and “Who’s your folks?” the final poser comes: “What’s you church?”

Like a Nose Out of Joint

I have seen people sometimes get huffy when you bring up religion as if you had asked whether they were wearing polka dot boxers, or long johns, or no underwear at all. “None of your d*** business” they seemed to say, even if they were too polite to voice the words. I have wondered over the years what it was that riled folks so when the subject turned to the spiritual, especially since I suspected almost everybody had an opinion on the matter of God and the state of his immortal soul just like almost everybody has a nose. And like a nose, it was sometimes put out of joint by the slightest affront or the mildest provocation.  Of course, I am aware that wars have been fought for centuries over religion, and I have seen some fights for myself that were only slightly less bloody than the War of the Roses. “I have a problem with organized religion,” I have occasionally heard, which always prompted me to think “Would you find disorganized religion more palatable? I think that can be arranged.” Perhaps, I concluded at last, the off-putting comes from what we consciously or inadvertently communicate: an offensive sense of our “rightness” and of our “righteousness” and consequently a tacit indictment of the others’ implied waywardness and wicked apostasy, if not their blatant and obstinate stupidity.

Certainty Has Eluded Me

Yet, this sense of certainty always eluded me. Indeed, the more I learned and the more powerfully I felt the allure of my own convictions, the more I realized what one risks in such matters. Maybe that is why many of my friends and acquaintances, as well as strangers, grow uncomfortable when the subject raises itself. When you follow a path that tracks the edge of an abyss only dimly lit by an uncertain moonlight you might be forgiven a bit of skittishness. Perhaps a little compassion would prompt us think twice before lambasting a brother with a liturgy that seems a little strange at first.

I, too, am conflicted by thoughts of religion. On one hand, I think that we are all so terribly alike in our hunger for meaning and significance; we want to matter and to be valued. We are all like Monte, the homeless cyclist who accosted me one day, “Pardon me, Sir. Could you spare some change? I’m powerful hungry.”  We are all hungry for something. I am sure of that.

My hunger was no less real than that of my brother on the road, only mine was a hunger of the spirit not of the belly. I concluded that we are all alike: hungry homeless ones. Yet we are also remarkably unique in our particular journey. “But does it really matter?” I asked myself. I became convinced that the journey of the spirit is, indeed, important and that it does make a profound difference what we choose to guide our life, for we risk the squandering the only true treasure we have, our one precious life, if we misapprehend the way of things. So I came to appreciate the dispatches of the soul that stout-hearted explorers sent back from the frontier.

A Lesson from a Lepidoptera

Moth Photo credit: carpetcleaningottawa.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Moth-Photos.jpg

Moth Photo credit: carpetcleaningottawa.com/

Among the varieties of religious expressions I discerned two categories: the outer, public religion of the club and social institution and the inner, when-nobody-is-watching kind of spirituality. I contend that one cannot always know what is happening on the inside by appearances. One summer evening this truth was demonstrated to me when as a young teenager I arrived at the church house to attend the vespers worship. I was loitering with my friends in the vestibule laughing and joking when an itinerant moth that had been aimlessly circling the overhead light suddenly decided to explore the recesses of my ear. One wag later quipped that the moth must have seen the glare shining through my (hollow) head and flew toward the glow. Whatever the reason, I was instantly knocked off my feet. I was unconcerned about those around me, about what I had held in my hands that I had sent flying. All of my attention was totally captivated by the sensation of the creature wriggling in my head. I was horrified. My ear itched, hurt, and tickled at the same time. I pounded on my head. It was futile. Each motion only drove the frantic and benighted insect deeper into the darkness. When it reached my ear drum it began a deafening tarantula dance with it wings and six tiny legs.

The dignified adults who glanced toward the back of the sanctuary frowned. What was the commotion? “Sammy’s slain in the spirit!” They might have thought.   Then they might have cautioned, “Beware the evil influence of the charismatic.” I, however, was not in the least interested in theological proprieties at that moment. My conniption came not from religious ecstasy but rather arose from an entomological infestation. I flung myself down on a pew writhing in pain. Soon my father was looking down at me. “What’s the matter son?”

“I’ve got a moth in my ear.” He stifled a chuckled but got to work to try to help. He took me home immediately. First he attempted to kill the bug with peroxide. The panic-stricken Lepidopteran only fluttered against its constraints more vigorously in the oxygenated foam of the solution. Then, after some thought, my mechanic of a father found some baby oil that he used with better results. Then with a pair of eye-brow tweezers and an hour and a half of labor his big hands crushed the hapless bug and gently exorcized pieces of the moth-spirit. It was slain but not in the Spirit. The experience made me forever afterward anxious to be in the vicinity of circling moths. My ears will begin to itch, and I scratch or at least cover them without thinking. Like the spectacle of my moth-possession, however, few knew what else was really going on inside me; they were without power to read my heart from my face. They could not see the storms and the conflict raging inside. I wondered if there were others like me, outwardly smiling but inwardly raging, bluffing their way along as I, but just as afraid to admit their weakness to anyone.

Two Varieties of Religiosity

Thus, I saw that there were really at least two kinds of religions: the Sabbath morning dress up big church one, and the one I knew on the creek bank. For me the former was a desiccated prune salad of which old people routinely partook because it “kept them regular,” one that was recommended because it was good for your constitution even if it were entirely unpalatable. The latter, however, I discovered to be an exciting adventure like the taste of wild Scuppernongs hanging from a limb in the woods, unimaginably sweet when sucked warm with the still living juice in them, the skin tart, the seeds bitter, the whole bronze or green but never dull, dead, or lifeless.

As I have muddled through the years since, I have sought and found—more often than less—the living kind of faith. I now rarely say that I am a “religious person,” since the declaration smacks of the former rather than the latter persuasion. Instead, I now strive to self-identify as a “Christ-follower.” This is closer to the “Way” described in the New Testament than the secular expectation of “church people.” I am also persuaded that this is closer to the “old time religion” than conventional wisdom would allow.

A recent Pew survey suggests that the American people may be less “religious” than in times past. As I think on that statement, I wonder if it might not be such a bad thing after all. It might mean that we are just more honest about what we truly believe than heretofore. It just might also mean that we are tired of prunes. As an alternative, my experience compels me to ask, “Have you tried fruit fresh-plucked from the vine? I recommend it.”

Scuppernong grapes, native to the South Photo credit: gardenandgun.com/files/GG0409_What's-in-Season_01(1).jpg

Scuppernong grapes, native to the South Photo credit: gardenandgun.com/files/GG0409_What’s-in-Season_01(1).jpg

[My next post “All-day-dinner and Singing-on-the-Grounds” with examine the other side of the coin—our desperate need for community in a living faith]